No coaches have been fired this NBA season … yet.
But that doesn’t mean sanity has been restored on NBA benches, not by a long shot. Of course, if one so chooses, a case can be made to fire many head coaches around the league.
Not great cases, mind you, but if a front office or ownership group decided someone must pay for an underwhelming start, it could happen and it would be only so shocking.
The pressure is unspoken but it’s seen, standing in the back of the room in every news conference, on the sidelines of every coaching move and substitution, which is what prompted Lakers coach Darvin Ham to state the obvious, to wonder aloud why every minute move is so scrutinized and dissected by media and fans alike.
“I’m tired of people living and dying with every single game we play,” Ham said recently. “It’s ludicrous, actually. It’s like, ‘C’mon man, this is a marathon.’”
The attention is what makes these jobs so coveted and well compensated, but the attention can be suffocating, annoying and anxiety-inducing. Ham is direct and projects strength — certainly code words for African-American coaches in professional sports — but he can’t afford to be seen sweating on the sidelines.
He has to take a 30,000-foot view while understanding not everyone will understand or appreciate his sentiments.
It’s the double-edged sword, perhaps even more so when one coaches the Los Angeles Lakers, a franchise that believes the stars are on the floor, with fans and celebrities paying exorbitant prices also to be seen on the floor.
As for coaches, well, the franchise’s track record states it doesn’t care much for coaches. Stars in their own right are treated like schmucks, even decorated ones like Pat Riley and Phil Jackson.
They both were fired after putting up multiple championship banners, or in Jackson’s case told, “Thanks but no thanks,” when he was ready to come back for a third stint to coach Kobe Bryant.
Riley was a co-author of the greatest moniker in basketball, “Showtime”, and so many fans associate him more as the Godfather of the Miami Heat, or the conductor of the rough-and-tumble New York Knicks that terrorized the league in the ’90s but don’t have a championship for their troubles.
That’s because the biggest star in coaching can’t even be a star for the franchise he established himself with, because that coach can never be the star of the Lakers.
Ham took the Lakers on a surprising run to the Western Conference finals last May, but all of that is seemingly forgotten as the Lakers sit alongside the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns on the outside looking in at guaranteed playoff spots.
Ham, like Milwaukee’s Adrian Griffin, sits at a dangerous intersection of so-called inexperience and expectation, while hoping not to run to the next four-way stop — with one of the streets titled “impatience.”
We saw it last year with Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla, thrust into a position he probably always wanted but not in the way he wanted in the wake of the Ime Udoka situation. At times, Mazzulla came across too thin-skinned, too concerned with the outside noise, that folks wondered how it affected him doing his job.
He still carries that edge in Year 2, but he’s more assured about his position, both in the locker room and in the league’s hierarchy in all likelihood.
You’d rather take over a team with generational talents than a franchise searching in the wilderness hoping to find one, but it’s well known what comes with coaching historic players.
When they have more equity in what they’ve accomplished than you have in your line of work, do you gain trust by taking a hard line? Or work with them by creating a partnership? The latter can blur the lines during those moments of truth when even players are looking for leadership and direction, while the former can create a weird dynamic because players in today’s game wield so much power and are often unafraid to swing the sword.
In Ham’s case, there’s clearly a belief his roster is good enough, thus the pressure. He points to not having a full roster, which, while true, feels flimsy.
The mistake that’s often made, though, is believing a team picks up where it left off the previous season. For the Lakers, knocking off the mouthy Grizzlies and dethroning the champion Warriors in the playoffs was a point of pride, even while being swept by the eventual champion Nuggets.
But the league doesn’t work that way, the Lakers aren’t starting off steps ahead of other teams simply because they happened to make it to the NBA’s version of the Final Four. This league moves so fast, teams can’t afford to blink — and because the numbers are so inflated, one can be deceived into believing a productive player is a winning player.
It points to Ham to make things work in the meantime, because it doesn’t seem like a life raft is coming by way of the front office or ownership. It seems Rob Pelinka believes in the roster he put together over the summer, and Ham has to twist and cajole to get this Rubik’s Cube aligned.
“You never know if you’ll get another chance, no matter how good you are,” a high-ranking executive told Yahoo Sports. “A guy like Darvin has to do it his way. Otherwise, he won’t be able to live with himself.”
Even James, who chooses his words very carefully and purposefully, delivered credit to an opposing coach, a former coach of his in Ty Lue.
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“You said it’s the James Harden Clippers? Nah. It’s the T-Lue Clippers,” James said. “”I know T-Lue very well. It don’t take T-Lue very long to make sure [stuff] get right. It took five games, and they’ve been cooking since.”
And this was after Ham and the Lakers bested Lue’s Clippers on Sunday night.
Surely it wasn’t a shot at Ham, but during such times of tumult, statements will be picked apart and interpreted as if there’s a bat signal coming from the top of Crypto.com Arena or whatever it’s being called nowadays.
Lue was a candidate to coach the Lakers at one point, but the two sides couldn’t come to terms on a deal — again, the Lakers never believe the coach is the star.
And remember, Lue and James clashed at times during their tenure in Cleveland but navigated to three Finals appearances and a memorable 2016 title that cemented James and Lue — both together and as separate entities.
Coaches are hired to be fired and will be blamed and questioned even as they rack up accomplishments and championships. They know this walking in the door and usually keep their frustrations tucked away.
Ham just said the quiet part out loud, and even if he shouldn’t have, he wasn’t wrong.